#16. Situational leadership, three adverts
also A Thousand Ships, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Cold Comfort Farm, garden produce
I had my vaccination last Friday. It was delivered with a smile by the team at Bees Pharmacy, using an iPad version of the booking app that looked like it was designed with the GDS design patterns, and I briefly felt a moment of pride at the work we’ve done in making government more digital and joined-up over the last ten years.
Of course there’s lots more to do. Like, maybe, better digital identity! But all over the UK there are talented teams and people taking care of their piece of the puzzle and sometimes just thinking about that is enough to bring a little joy into my world.
My colleague Victoria once told me that the hardest promotion of your career is going from managing no one to managing one other person. I have found this to be true.
The biggest thing I’ve struggled with as a manager is knowing when to let people go and when to step in and direct people. When I first started managing people this manifested itself as a twin dilemma that gave me an ongoing headache:
I knew that it was more motivating to give people autonomy…but sometimes when I let people go they would head off in completely the wrong direction.
I knew that it was bad to be a micro-manager…but sometimes when I told people what to do we’d get better results and the person would pick up a new skill.
I used to flip between letting people go (when time was relaxed) and telling people what to do (when deadlines loomed). This flipping made me a bad manager and in my frustration I went to get some coaching.
Alice Chapman changed my life by explaining her take on situational leadership:
Instead of flipping around based on time pressure, she encouraged me to focus on the confidence and competence of the person in the specific situation and:
Let people go when they are both confident and competent. If they know what they’re doing then you can set goals and get out of the way.
Coach people when they are competent but lack confidence. If they’re good but they don’t know it then support them in finding the answers themselves.
Retrain people who are confident but not actually competent. If they think they’re good, but they’re actually not (lots of men here!), it’s time to take them back to re-learn the thing they’re doing.
Direct people who really don’t know what they’re doing. If they’re doing something new and unfamiliar it’s fine to step in and tell them how to do it.
This cured my twin dilemma. In terms of situational leadership, letting people go and telling people what to do are both valid approaches. It’s not either/or, it’s which/when. I found this incredibly liberating in itself. No one size fits all.
But it also created a whole new area of work for me. Instead of just worrying about the work I had to understand the people I managed in terms of how confident and competent they were in different situations and adjust my approach accordingly. Honestly, this was a bit terrifying for me. I had no experience of making these kinds of judgements and suddenly it was the core of my role.
This is why I love Victoria’s observation so much. Moving from managing no one to managing someone forced me to grow a difficult new skill - understanding different humans and their approach to work - almost overnight. No wonder it was hard.
I’m still figuring out how to do this well. I reckon it’ll take a lifetime and I’ll still be bad at it. But Alice’s model and Victoria’s wisdom at least gave me a working map.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends recently because of the pandemic. And I had a moment the other day where I realised that you can trace most of my friendships back to three adverts pinned up on cork noticeboards in public areas in 1998.
Back in 1997 I’d moved to Manchester to go to university. I knew barely anyone in the city and for the first six months I was pretty lonely. So:
In February 1998 I replied to an advert in the students’ union. Three people who played guitar, bass and drums were looking for someone to bring synths and samples. I met them in the Footage and Firkin, travelled back to Withington, and ended up playing with them in their loft. I made a drum and bass remix of that session and ended up in a band with them for most of the next decade. But it was the induction to their whole social circle that mattered most. It was a lifeline.
In May 1998 me and a friend put up our own advert for housemates for our second year. Neither of us had clicked with any of the people we’d lived with in halls and we decided to roll the dice. We met two women who seemed nice and agreed to get a house together. And it was through one of these that I ended up meeting the amazing group of women who are now my all-time soul mates.
In September 1998 I let the same friend talk me into auditioning for West Side Story after he saw an advert. He said, come on Will, what have we got to lose - neither of us has met people we click with. I ended up playing a minor Shark with a single line and loving the group dances. The choreographer introduced me to a DJ at a wrap party and we ran a club night together for years. He introduced me to his friends and one of these friends was…Esther.
Responding to 3 adverts in 6 months built my social circle for the next 20 years and set me up with my life partner! If only I could have told that to my lonely self in 1997…
I guess everyone has a version of this - so much of our life is random chance, all relationships start with some weird serendipity - but I look back at myself and hardly recognise the person that not only hunted out adverts but showed up and was open enough to find the common ground to start new friendships.
I don’t know whether that person has faded with age, is inhibited from in-person interactions by too much time behind screens, or is just less lonely. But it makes me wonder if I’m missing out on friendships for the next 20 years by not being like that?
In the meantime, though, mostly I’m just missing my friends. Not long now.
My dad got me A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes for Christmas which is the narrative story of all the women of the Trojan War (it’s the fiction-twin of Pandora’s Jar which I raved about too). It is epic. The afterword moved me to tears on its own. And I challenge anyone to read the chapter about Iphigenia and not come away rooting for Clytemnestra when she gets her revenge a decade later…
I watched The Wind That Shakes the Barley and all I can say is that I should have watched it a long time ago. Ken Loach makes consistently good films. Cillian Murphy is compelling to watch. But the reason I should’ve seen it sooner is that I’m still chronically under-informed about the horrific history of British rule in Ireland. Anything that can put a dent in that inherited complacency is welcome and necessary.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on audiobook. I was staying in Sussex last weekend and it seemed appropriate. It’s a brisk, funny little book that was written in 1932 but set after 1946 so gets classed as sci-fi in some places. It’s also a parody (which I didn’t know) of Victorian rural novels (which I haven’t read) which left me feeling a bit confused in places.
Rocket, purple sprouting broccoli, garlic and spring onions from the garden. Tastes better when you’ve grown it yourself right?
Now that I’ve got my vaccine I’ve booked my first week off work in a loooong time to go to Cornwall in early June and before that I’m heading up to Manchester for the bank holiday. I can’t wait to be sat on a train looking out at the green fields rushing by.
I love reading your thoughts Will. This one made me a bit emosh. Stars aligned well...